How Being an Ice Mermaid is a Lot Like Being a Writer
November 7, 2022 § 11 Comments
By Heidi Croot
Photojournalist Greta Rybus’s New York Times story, “Cold-Plunging With Maine’s Ice Mermaids,” tells of six women who meet on a cold January day for a frigid plunge in a Maine pond. They axe a rectangular hole in the ice and wearing bathing suits and boots, ease themselves in, smiling as they grasp the thick, broken edge with mittened hands.
After the blue-lip dip, the “ice mermaids” hightail it to the sauna, “cobbled together from a former fish house and an old stove,” to bask in the heat. Then it’s back to the water.
They repeat the cycle three times.
What is it about this bone-rattling practice that catches me?
It’s got to be more than my love of annual after-dark dives into a frigid Ontario lake at Thanksgiving. More even than the gasping pleasure of finishing every hot shower with a 30-second blast of ice-cold well water.
Ida Lennestål, an ice mermaid featured in Rybus’s article, says that whether she’s in the water or the “hot box,” it’s a way “to get out of my head and into my body.” Once submerged, her body “doesn’t worry about the future or the past, how it looks or whether it is loved. The body just is.”
And that’s when I get it.
The mermaids have found something writers want: an efficient method for shutting down distractions and ushering themselves into the zone.
In our case, the elusive writers’ zone.
As writers, we arrive on the shore of a frozen landscape and survey the vast expanse of possibility for our next project. We heed the call of inspiration pointing us to a likely point of entry—some distance out but within earshot of the raucous blue jays darting through the red pines. We hoist the axe and with strength of purpose chop a portal into a deep, black, unknown world. At once hopeful and vulnerable, we ease in.
“After the initial hurdle of getting into the water, everything slows down—the breath, the heart, the buzz of the brain,” Ida says. “The bliss when it’s all over lasts for hours.”
And with that, I picture myself alone on a frozen lake, gazing at the rectangular black outline on the white page of ice.
I imagine dropping in limb by limb, a slow-drip entry requiring far more courage than a head-first dive. I hang there, mouth an O. The urgency of ice water burns down my thoughts to bright coals. With no place to hide, my subconscious, that shy apprentice, delivers story crystals, bridge formations, solar chariots.
Ideas take shape, words follow.
But in time, the spell breaks, as it must. My body calls enough. Pain replaces pleasure, and I can no longer hear my thoughts. Forced into self-consciousness, I lift up and out of the solitude. I must seek shelter, someplace warm where I can assess the jumble ice, drifts, and piles.
I long for the community of sauna.
In my dream, I lean into the scent of hot, damp cedar and the clean sweat of warming bodies, my fellow writers and I seated on planks before the stove, my wet, fledgling story shapeshifting in the scorching steam like a mirage.
“You’ve done a fine thing here,” my gentle writer-friends whisper, “but have you considered this other thing?”
Soon, communal effort submits to a rising need to withdraw. The sauna feels limiting. I crave release from this hot, salty soup. New ideas have formed in the exhalation, and I need to be alone with them.
Consider the fundamental property of the cold plunge: its ability to detach the mind from its obsessions, allowing the supremely wise subconscious to enter the void, to breathe, to flex—its power brief as a wave that rushes in to sculpt before receding.
We know it as the zone. As being in flow. That emotional state where creativity claims us and the outside world kneels.
But what if a frozen pond isn’t readily accessible? How else might writers clear their heads to make space for stories?
If you live an interior life, an audacious prompt might be your portal. If your endorphins light up at the prospect of exercise, your way in may be a run, cycle or swim. Those with a reverence for nature might thrust their hands into the garden. If you’re in an emotional time, you might sing or weep in the shower, yell into a well or pillow, send up prayers to an ancestor. If music is your balm, you could give yourself over to an hour of Bach, Ella or Elton.
But here’s the thing. The process of cold plunging, Rybus notes, is “its own distinct experience, with its own intention and power.”
So, whichever mind-sweeping activity you choose to subdue distractions, make it as distinct and intentional as a cold plunge in a fresh-cut pond. Carve out the time and know what you’re there to do and why. Give your subconscious the space to deliver.
And keep your pen or keyboard ready.
Heidi Croot is an award-winning corporate writer and a newly inducted editor into the Brevity Blog team. Her creative work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Brevity Blog, Mud Season Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Ontario’s Northumberland County and is gathering courage to query her memoir. You can reach her on Twitter.
beautiful piece – swimming with images and messaging worthy of a plunge!
“Swimming with images” — love it! Thanks, Christine.
I have not swum in an ice-chopped pond, but I have swum in a September-cold Canadian Shield lake. I was one of three — no screams allowed on entry nor on exit. It was an immersive experience that cleared the mind, woke up the body, and sparked my imagination. I shall remember that experience and recall this evocative piece, Heidi, when next I sit before a blank white page that calls me to dive in.
“No screams” — yes! It’s the only way. Lovely response, Amanda. I appreciate it.
Wow! What stunningly beautiful writing and imagery. And I love this in particular, “We know it as the zone. As being in flow. That emotional state where creativity claims us and the outside world kneels.” Thanks so much for sharing this inspiring writing on the Brevity Blog! 💖🙏🏼🕊
And wow from me to you! Thank you for this, Camilla.
Such important insights into the writing process and so beautifully said, Heidi. Like a cold plunge and warm friends, this piece will stay with me. Many thanks!
Big smile here. Thank you so much, Sally!
Delighted you think so!
Love your imagery, Heidi, and how you carry it through. For me the deep plunge is either garden or Vipassana meditation. Either will take me out of my thinking-head and where it will. I’ll pass on the ice water plunge!