For much of my life, I had very little interest in finding peace. I felt no desire for stillness or inner calm amidst the frenetic activity and perpetual motion. And then, when I finally began to crave some tranquillity, I went searching for it in distant lands - on an Indian yoga retreat or in the African wilds.
But as I lay on a patch of grass at the Kenwood Ladies' Pond in London yesterday evening, I realised the peace I'd thought was so elusive and so far away was within my reach - and on my doorstep.
I'm not the first to appreciate the magical properties of the North London swimming ponds - Taking the Waters: A Swim Around Hampstead Heath is the latest book to sing their praises - and I'm sure I won't be the last.
Nor am I the first writer to use the word magical to describe them. But I can't think of a better way to sum up the aura of the grassy slopes and cold, murky waters of Kenwood Ladies' Pond.
I've always loved swimming in the ocean and I still think the sense of freedom and awe I experience in the sea is hard to beat. But as I floated on my back in the evening sun with branches and foliage above me, reeds to each side and ducks in the distance, I felt at peace.
And as I lay on the grass after my swim, drinking in the greens of the trees and reading my book, I had that feeling that I get so rarely in a life that, despite my attempts to go slower, remains far too frenetic: In this moment, I have absolutely everything I need to be happy.
Nature has a lot to do with the special ambience of the Kenwood Ladies' Pond. The colours are stunning and the birdsong delightful. But the absence of men likely plays a part too - at least for me. It seems that here, our bikinis don't need to match and our legs don't need to be waxed. We can sunbathe topless no matter our shape or size or lie around in distinctly non-designer underwear.
Of course, maybe my fellow swimmers and sunbathers always feel so relaxed, at ease and comfortable in their own skin. But for someone who's never felt thin enough, toned enough or attractive enough and who starved and binged for years to try to compensate, the Women Only sign at the gate of the pond is a welcome sight. Even though we women can often be our own worst enemies, it's the lack of men that helps me feel free. Free from judgement. Free from any desire to compete. Free from the need to hold my tummy in or look my best.
Looking around at the diversity of female body shapes and skin tones sprawled on blankets and sarongs across the lawn adds to that sense of freedom. How ludicrous it is to try to conform to a single mould when we were all created so differently. How crazy to want to be tall and thin when we're small and curvaceous or to fight against our God-given shapes.
Adding to the peaceful atmosphere - aside from the no mobile phone or young children rules - is a sense of camaraderie and mutual appreciation amongst the sisterhood of swimmers that can sometimes be absent from our normal interactions about town. "Where did you get your costume?" asks one stranger to another. "I love it!" "Can I ask what hair colour you use? That red really suits you," says another stranger to a fellow bather.
Once again, perhaps this is my own insecurity speaking. Maybe other women are always able to appreciate each other's beauty without envy or without feeling less than. But my deep and irrational dislike for my shape, size and hair over so many years fueled feelings of jealousy and made it difficult to admire the feminine beauty around me without coming off comparatively worse. Somehow the pond frees me of that.
To be at peace, according to the dictionary definition, is to be tranquil, quiet and free from disquieting or oppressive thoughts or emotions. It's to be in a state of harmony in our relationships with others and, I would add, most importantly with ourselves.
That's what I feel at the pond. And although I know I don't have to go to Hampstead to access that sense of peace - that it lies on the inside - somehow the ambience of the pond seems to help.
It helps take me away from the list of things to do, from the constant drive to achieve, to perform, to write, to please, to be someone and to turn myself into a better version of me. It puts me amidst beauty - of Nature, of my fellows and of myself. It gives me space to feel, to grieve, to take stock, to rest. It grounds me. It brings me back to earth.
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