Going into the cold

Icy blades sliced my skin as I plunged into Okanagan Lake.

As the oh-so-cold water swallowed me, the image of mercury dropping in a thermometer forced its way into my freezing brain.

It was Jan. 31. The water was three degrees Celsius.

It was my New Year’s Day swim – just a month late. In spite of my 71 years dancing with time, I haven’t grasped that it won’t flow the way I want it.

A few minutes later as I shivered my way out of the lake and into my clothes, I envied the hawk floating high above it all. I felt like the gull tossed to and fro by the wind, shrieking its rage as it was buffeted by elements beyond its control.

In my effort to be more hawk-like, to escape the prison of comfort, I go into the cold, to voluntarily embrace pain, to accept what life offers with open arms. Without whining. That’s the hard part

Since that initial icy flagellation, I’ve been doing a daily polar bear swim — well, the Reader’s Digest version of a swim, more like a three-minute flail.

My belated New Year’s aspiration had been to do a monthly dip.

But after talking with my son, Ryan, who was doing the Wim Hof Method — cold showers every morning, a special breathing method, and commitment — I added a leap into the lake every day.

The method is named after the Dutch extreme athlete, the Iceman, who has run an Arctic marathon and climbed Mount Everest, or most of it, in shorts; no shoes or shirt. He also ran a marathon in the desert without drinking water.

He claims that he isn’t special and that anyone can do what he does.

He has been poked, prodded and needled countless times in scientific studies. The conclusions back up something he learned 45 years ago when he was 17 — that commitment, embracing the cold and his breathing method are good for the body and mind.

I am much more of a wuss than the Iceman and my protocol much more subdued: Strip down to shorts, no shoes, grab a towel, and my car keys, and take a two-minute walk to the end of the dock in a public park.

Initially, I climbed down the steel ladder in my birthday suit, but since it seemed to scare the neighbours and the Canada geese, I opted for political correctness and hid the naughty bits beneath my shorts.

The geese have returned; not sure about the neighbours.

But if they did, I’m sure they are more mindful of what they look at.

Mindfulness is the rage these days and the cold helps there. I am forced to be mindful when I climb the steel ladder on a cold day after emerging from an even colder lake; I peel wet hands and feet off the freezing steel.

If my face had not been frozen, I would have smiled at the childhood memory of sticking my tongue on steel and slowly peeling it off.

If I did it too quickly, I lost a layer of skin. My parents were OK with that; it kept me from talking — for a little while.

When I jitterbug out of the lake, I meet the most interesting people, who want to chat; I try to channel John Wayne while feeling like Pee Wee Herman.

It would have made an interesting picture, in mid-February, me standing in the middle of Pritchard Drive, a stripped towel around my waist talking to three ladies, dressed like Vancouverites in an Iqaluit winter out for their daily walk.

The biggest reaction and most questions come from women.

“You’d better not get in trouble out there because no one is coming to get you,” one told me as I towelled off.

“You were swimming in the lake?” another woman asked. “You are brave.” (That was her outside voice; I’m betting the inside one said something much different.)

I got a thumbs up from another lady as she drove by. “Very impressive.”

An elderly European man wondered what I had done with my skates, while three other men refused my invitation to join me, but said they would shiver with me while sitting on the park bench in their parkas.

Wonder if they were put off by the weird guy or the cold?

I had learned about the cold on a frozen ocean long before Wim Hof, but never warmed up to it like he did.

As a kid raised on an island off the coast of Newfoundland – wood stoves, no electricity or in-door plumbing — I had frozen various parts of my anatomy many times while playing in the snow and cold. I still shiver as I think about icicles frozen to my eyelashes.

I dreaded going home because the warmth was worse, temporarily, than the cold. My father would dip the frozen parts of me in cold water — and hold them there in spite of my efforts to escape.

A lot of time has passed since Fogo Island, but warming up still hurts like it did 60 plus years ago.

The hot shower feels wonderful, except when it hits the sensitive appendages — the hot water lacerating them can be as painful as the cold.

What did I learn or re-learn doing what most people call crazy when they really mean stupid? That the body can adapt to a almost anything if the mind is willing to lead? One of the first things a would-be motorcyclist learns: the bike will follow the eyes.

So it is in life. The body will follow the mind – into cold water and through fear. Sometimes it hurts, but pain is fleeting; it only lasts a lifetime.

Full immersion in a cold lake is great training if you want to play the living dead in a movie or costume party because, after 14 minutes in the lake in February, I walked much like the zombies in The Walking Dead.

A few more minutes and I might not have been walking – if my core temperature had dropped much more, I would have dropped. Forever.

The Iceman I am not – but maybe after taking cold showers and lake dips for 45 years like he has, I will be.

Wim Hof is no longer alone; thousands have accepted his invitation to go into the cold — a growing worldwide contingent of diehards who do a daily dive into frigid water. There are some in Kelowna, and there is a club in Victoria, the Odd Balls, that has 450 members who meet in the ocean at 6 a.m.

The truly dedicated pay thousands to go to Hof’s camps in Poland and Spain for personal instruction.

Of course, they could save themselves the money and take advice from Seneca, and Tyler Durden.

“If you have passed through life without an opponent, no one can know what you are truly capable of, not even you,” said Seneca, the Roman author, and power behind the young emperor Nero (before he started fiddling). Seneca practised Stoicism, which also advocates getting comfortable with discomfort.

Durden, in the movie Fight Club, had a similar philosophy. “How much can you know about yourself if you’ve never been in a fight?”

How can we know what we are capable off if we never move outside our comfort zone, if we don’t learn to embrace discomfort, if we don’t go into the cold?

Join me in the lake — now or in January.

Leaping into old age

If orange is the new black, 65 is the new 13 — with a little 21 thrown in for good measure.

Those over 65 stand at the boundary of a brave new world that requires an explorer’s mindset because the rules, regulations and requirements of the old life, the old country, won’t work in the new.

“The second half of life is a summons to a life of the spirit, to ask, and answer for ourselves, uniquely, separately, what matters most,” wrote Jungian analyst James Hollis.

We are changing, and will continue to change, as much from within as without.

Just as we were over taken by something much bigger than ourselves at puberty, beyond periods and pimples, so, too, we are again grasped and tossed about like a bone in a dog’s mouth.

Women are reminded of the hormonal changes during the years-long menopause and post-menopause, and men, much more subtly, during andropause.

We see daily reminders of the changes in our personal geography –— both physical and psychological — and remember friends and acquaintances who never made it this far.

About 56 million people die every year, most never getting a chance to join the senior network — 110 billion people have lived since the dawn of time, many having died long before 65.

Instead of bemoaning the failing vision and hearing, the body parts heading south, we can strive to be grateful that we belong to the brotherhood and sisterhood of the old, with a modicum of knowledge to ease those aches and pains.

With that comes more peace, more acceptance, more understanding of what is important.

In spite of COVID and other inequities, we live in the best of times.

If, as Kris Kristofferson reminded us, freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, we have fewer things to lose post-65 — fewer aspirations, fewer goals, fewer years.

After the mortgages, after putting kids though university, after the career, we’re free to move beyond the Prufrockian paralysis and dare to disturb the universe.

In The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot puts these words into the mouth of his dithering anti-hero, sentiments that many of us parrot 110 years after the Anglo-American poet wrote them.

“I grow old . . . I grow old . . .
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.
Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare to eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.
I do not think they will sing to me.”

We can move beyond the dithering and dare to be free, finally, to relish life, to drink it to the lees, to drain the bottle with gusto, the way Zorba the Greek would have done it, to dive into the “full catastrophe,” affirming and embracing whatever life sends our way — and go out of our way to find and surf chaos.

We can choose not to complain about our aches and pains, but welcome the wisdom that comes with accepting the pain – and the inevitable demise.

What is the alternative? Letting life slip away as we watch the virtual version on TV? Run to the modern-day priesthood — physicians, psychologists and psychiatrists — for a pill that might help us hang onto our youth, vigour and smooth-lined faces or do we follow the path to where nature will take us — willingly or kicking and screaming?

The end will be the same, but we can choose our attitude and how we get there.

On this journey of self-discovery, it is time to take Hollis’ advice and “review every commitment, every friendship, every practice and every summons and say in a new way, ‘I will not serve that which does not serve me.’”

We don’t have to go to a monastery or an ashram to find out how. The poet, Alfred, Lord Tennyson laid out a frame for life post-65 in Ulysses, his anthem to muscular old age.

The Greek hero of the Trojan War, after his hard-earned, 10-year journey home to Penelope and Ithaca, chafed under the contentment and constraints of life in a rocking chair. He longed for adventure and the open sea.

“Old age hath yet his honour and his toil;
Death closes all: but something ere the end,
Some work of noble note, may yet be done,
Not unbecoming men that strove with Gods.
The lights begin to twinkle from the rocks:
The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

Mythologist Joseph Campbell, shortly before his death at 83, echoed those sentiments in his scholarly, yet avuncular way:

“In my own life, I am now looking back and I can tell you that there’s a wonderful moment that comes when you realize ‘I’m not striving for anything.’ What I’m doing now is not a means of achieving something later.

“After a certain age, there’s not a future, and suddenly the present becomes rich and it becomes a thing in itself which you are now experiencing.”

Like the new 13.

Eckhart Tolle and Thich Nhat Hahn, both post-65, advice that if we only do one thing to achieve peace of mind, count your breath. It keeps us in touch with the present.

The present, ah, the present. It can teach us to appreciate where we are right now, and the T-shirt that says grumpy old man (or woman) because we have earned the saying, the T-shirt and the wrinkles.

“It’s not by strength or speed or swiftness of body that great deeds are done, but by wisdom, character, and sober judgment,” wrote Roman statesman Cicero in How To Grow Old.

“These qualities are not lacking in old age, but, in fact, grow richer as time passes.”

Cicero didn’t quite make it to 65; he was killed, at 63, by Mark Antony’s henchmen. But 63 was old in 43 BC and the elderly, unless they made enemies of the rich and powerful, were usually treated with respect.

Modernity does not treasure the old, often mistreats them, us, as something disposable. We’ve all witnessed that abysmal treatment in old-folks homes as the elderly were mowed down by coronavirus.

John Prine highlighted society’s indifference toward the elderly in Hello In There, the plaintive plea to acknowledge that ocean of knowledge and wisdom.

At the time Homer wrote The Odyssey, and the way Indigenous still do, the old were treated with great respect, even reverence.

It is time to for us on the death track to reclaim that heritage and plant our flag on the ramparts of our own dreams and not those of society, and become who we always wanted to be.

With the duties and demands that played like the sirens’ song, we felt compelled to do society’s bidding and foundered on the rocks of out own broken dreams. “(But) 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world.”

We could learn from James Escalante, a Los Angeles teacher who taught calculus to students reputed to be difficult to teach. Under his tutelage, they blossomed. His insights are as applicable to the elderly, to any age, as they are to the troubled young.

“When you know who you are, you will have the answer to every challenge that life poses,” he said. “When you do not remember who you are, all of life is a problem.

“Close your eyes, quiet your mind and delve into your source. Deep within you is the awareness that you are a spiritual being, perfect, whole and one with the Great Mind that created you. Herein lies the source of all healing. It is the way out of your difficulty into peace.”

Actor Christopher Plummer, who recently died at 91, wrote in his memoir:

“As I creep deeper into twilight, it is not so much the fear of dying that disturbs me, but the sudden awareness that I’ve just begun to live and how dreadfully I’m going to miss it when I’m gone.”

He is now gone, but we are still here and, if we have even a sliver of wisdom, we will take his advice and that of Odysseus in the final lines of Tennyson’s poem:

We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Almost 3,000 years earlier, Homer put similar words in Odysseus’s mouth in The Odyssey:

“I will stay with it and endure through suffering hardship, and once the heaving sea has shaken my raft to bits, then will I swim.”

Seize the (eternal) moment

It is the best of times, it is the worst of times (with apologizes to Charles Dickens).

We’ve all looked at the clock with dread as we battled a deadline and willed the hands to slow down. We’ve all spent a night before someone we love leaves, fixing the clock with an evil eye, hoping the hands of time will take a coffee break.

We let the world outside control us and we respond, like puppets, to strings pulled by who we know not and dance to an unseen caller.

  • We hurry.
  • We scurry.
  • We stress.

We can identity with Andrew Marvell as he sat at his desk in Elizabethan England and wrote: “Had we but world enough and time.”

Even thought it was written 400 years ago, it feels present, as if time had collapsed those four centuries into this moment.

To His Coy Mistress is not on many people’s reading list, but we’ve all identified with another line from the poem as we spilled our tea hurrying to a meeting or a presentation: “Time’s winged chariot hurrying near.”

We feel it at our back and think the horses in the chariot’s braces are galloping even more furiously than when we had more hair and less waist, but they’re cantering at a more leisurely pace.

Only a few billion years ago, the day was 10 hours. And contrary to what we think and feel, it’s getting longer as the moon’s pull drags on the Earth’s rotation.

We compensate for the planetary sloth by operating in the supersonic: we zip from one thing to the other without really touching down; we check out schedule on our cell in traffic — even though it’s against the  law — and race to where it tells us to go.

We’ve switched jailers from the one on our wrist to the one in our pocket, or on our belt.

“How we spend our days is how we spend our life,” wrote Pulitzer-winning author Annie Dillard.

We promise ourselves that tomorrow we’ll learn Spanish, go on that long vacation, take yoga, start meditating, slow down.

But in spite of our hurrying, the running from one thing to the next until we fall into bed exhausted, we know it doesn’t have to be this way. We can control time. We can bend it to our will.

The writers of The Talmud, that great fountain of knowledge from the Jewish tradition, knew that. “Who forces time is pushed back by time; who yields to time finds time on his side.”

We’re time’s willingly slave. We adopt a victim mentality that allows the digital slave master to dictate how we behave, and when.

“Your time is limited, so don't waste it living someone else's life. Don't be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people's thinking,” said Steve Jobs, co-founder of Apple Inc.

“Don't let the noise of other's opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

There are about 745,000 hours in an average lifetime, but we dictate whether we want to be average. (The average 60 year old has a one per cent chance of increasing those hours to 876,000, to watching the clock tick pass the century mark.) 

“Time goes by very fast,” Canadian Rockette Jeanette Heller was quoted in a Globe and Mail obit. “When I tuned around and was 95, I didn’t believe it myself.”

Seneca, the Roman Stoic philosopher, and Nero’s mentor, had a similar view almost 2,000 years ago.

”It is not that we have a short time to live,” he wrote in On the Shortness of Life, “but that we waste a lot of it. Life is long enough, and a sufficiently generous amount has been given to us for the highest achievements, if it is well invested.”

There are two kinds of time: chronos and kairos. We worship one and ignore the other, except when it grabs us in those moments of accidental reflection. One is nine to five, something outside us that we allow to dictate how we behave and how we feel inside.

The other covers the special times, the shining times, those times when we turn off our cell and ignore the clock on the wall, the time we spend in eternity.

Those are the times we get lost in the wonder, when we fall into the music of a great song, hug someone we love, are transfixed by a baby’s eyes. Time feels different then.

"(Kairos) signifies a time in between, a moment of undetermined period of time in which something special happens. What the special something is depends on who is using the word. While chronos is quantitative, kairos has a qualitative nature," says an article on Wikipedia.

“According to ancient Greeks, Kairos was the god of the fleeting moment, a favourable opportunity opposing the fate of man. The moment must be grasped; otherwise the moment is gone and cannot be re-captured.”

Kairos is a child at play or an artist at work: absorbed in the moment, unselfconscious. They’re immersed in eternity.

“In Our Town, after Emily has died in childbirth, (author) Thornton Wilder has her ask the Stage Manager if she can return home to relive just one day,” Madeleine L’Engle writes in Walking on Water.

“Reluctantly, he allows her to do so. And she is torn by the beauty of the ordinary, and by our lack of awareness of it. She cries out to her mother, ‘Mama, just look at me one minute as though you really saw me… it goes so fast we don’t have time to look at one another.’

“And she goes back to the graveyard and the quiet company of the others lying there, and she asks the Stage Manager ‘Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it?’ And he sighs and says, ‘No. The saints and poets, maybe. They do some.’”

Carpe diem!


Turn, turn, turn

To everything - turn, turn, turn
There is a season - turn, turn, turn
And a time for every purpose under heaven

That song was written by Pete Seeger in the 1950s and made famous by the Byrds in the 1960s, a time of great societal ferment and personal change.

While Seeger gets the royalties, the lyrics were written more than 2,000 years ago by Ecclesiastes, one of the most pessimistic writers in the Bible.

Seeger changed and added a few words, but otherwise, it’s all Ecclesiastes.

It’s time for another turn. Summer is a time out, a respite from our nine-to-five life, when we take off the tie and tight shoes and slip on shorts and sandals. The season isn’t quite over yet, but if we listen intently, we can almost hear Mother Nature packing up the greenery.

Students go back to school, workers return from holidays, some people start new jobs, others new lives. We feel a quickening, a buzz, a sense of unfinished business, an urge to do something that has nothing to do with back-to-school shopping, getting a new wardrobe or a new car.

The seasonal change is mandated, while the personal is a choice. But, then, every day, every moment is pregnant with purpose if we choose to accept the invitation to our own re-birth, if we respond to the inner stirrings that are always there, but we ignore.

“Perhaps life is calling you right now to look beyond the appearance of things, not to find a deeper meaning, but a whole new way of looking,” Neil Douglas-Klotz writes in The Sufi Book of Life.

In the Five Stages of the Soul, Harry Moody tells another Sufi story, involving Charles Campbell, and his wife who quit their jobs and went on a spiritual journey. For two weeks, they sat at the feet of a Sufi master in Iran, but eventually returned home.

Two years later, while sitting in mediation, Campbell heard a voice inside his chest: “Come!”

An hour later, on his way to work, he heard it again. Later that day, his wife said she, too, heard the voice in her chest.

Five days later, they were on their way to Teheran.

“I heard you calling me,” Campbell said as he entered the Sufi master’s chambers.

“Did you now?” the master said.

“Here, right in my chest.”

“I see,” said the master, “and what did I say to you?”

“You were calling me, telling me to come.”

There was a long silence and finally the master broke it with a barely audible chuckle.

“Mr. Campbell, my dear Mr. Campbell, don’t you realize, I’ve been calling you every day for two years. It’s taken you all this time to finally hear me.”

We all have an internal Sufi master calling us to reach for our potential, to be faster, higher, stronger. But we’re too busy to answer.

Most of us acknowledge, at least intellectually, that we create, or choose, our life, that the world is a reflection of our thoughts and beliefs. So if we know it’s inside our head, why do we keep looking outside when we want to make changes?

If our methodology isn’t working, maybe this season is a time to change our strategy, to re-frame the problem and look at it from a different perspective.

We could turn, turn, turn. Turn around. Look in. Shift the essence of us 180 degrees and stare into the universe of self and see the worlds contained therein.

In Hindu mythology, there is a story of Krishna being raised among the Gopis in which the foster mother of the god pretending to be a boy heard he was eating dirt.

She ran to clean out his mouth and saw the whole universe contained inside. The god gave her the gift of forgetfulness, but we have to give ourselves the boon of remembering.

“The privilege of a lifetime is being who we are,” mythologist Joseph Campbell said.

Go back and read that again. There’s a doctrine, a philosophy, a religion, a way of life embedded in those
10 words.

Granted, there aren’t any rules or schematics that tell us how to behave, but if we lived that statement, we wouldn’t need any.

We would be spontaneous; it is only when we ignore our nature and act the way we think others expect that problems arise.

Perceval, one of the knights of the Round Table, found, but lost the Grail because he behaved “politely” rather than spontaneously and didn’t ask the compassionate question that would have healed the king.

“The formula for failure is trying to please everybody with everything that you do,” said motivational guru Wayne Dyer. “So the formula for success must be opposite of that which is not being consumed with what other people are thinking, and listening to your own inner voice.”

This can be the season for self-inquiry, for total commitment to mapping the undiscovered country of self, the search for our Holy Grail.

“Ask of yourself, inquire into yourself, pursue yourself, investigate within yourself, and never let others tell you what it is, not let it be explained in words,” D.T. Suzuki quotes a meditation master in The Essentials of Zen Buddhism.

At the top of psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs is self-actualization:

“the desire for self-fulfilment, namely the tendency for (the individual) to become actualized in what he is potentially. This tendency might be phrased as the desire to become more and more what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming.”

“A time to gain, a time to lose
A time to rend, a time to sew
A time to love, a time to hate
A time of peace, I swear it's not too late!”

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About the Author

Ross Freake, a former managing editor of The Daily Courier, has worked at 11 newspapers from St. John's to Kamloops. He is the author of three books and the editor and ghost writer of many others.

He can be reached at [email protected]

The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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