China Beach

Swimming off of China Beach in Sea Cliff is a different experience entirely than swimming in the Bay. We’re in the ocean here, outside the Gate, one cove beyond Baker Beach, an inlet before the outward sweep of Lands End. The color of the water is deep jade green. It’s saltier and fresher than in the Bay, less silt. Out here there are waves and swells and on some days getting off the beach and swimming back can be a challenge in the heavy surf. I’ve been tumbled more than once. All summer long and into the autumn the water has been unusually warm, well into the 60’s. Old-timers like to say it’s too warm, but I’ll take these mild temperatures any day. The cold water will come soon enough and swimming off China Beach, lacking showers and a sauna, becomes an exercise in finding ways to get warm beneath blankets and sipping hot tea.


The world changes out here, moving from the sand to the sea.   Sensed texture and our perceptions of space change. In the water our bodies feel different, surrounded by a force that compels attention from all of our senses. Wendell Berry suggests this in his essay ‘The Rise’, where he describes setting float in a canoe on a river in spate. “No matter how deliberately we moved from the shore into the sudden violence of a river on the rise,’ writes Berry, ‘there would be several uneasy minutes of transition. The river is another world, which means that one’s senses and reflexes must begin to live another life.’


The ocean is another world. In it we live another life. Transition is elemental to open water swimming. Those first uneasy minutes are part of the pleasure and the agony. This is San Francisco, so even on a day destined to be warm and sunny, mornings are cool and during the summer nearly always foggy. As the water temperature drops, the transition becomes abrupt and sometimes violent, like a sharp punch in the stomach. We are not the same person after the plunge as we were standing on the beach.

Marriage is a transition, too. Brenda and I were married in October, exactly one month ago today. Our lives together began with a focus on the water, an experience both separate and as one. The ocean-born metaphors for our lives together come easily. And happily, the plunge has been a gentle one, warm water all the time. My breath still gets taken away, in delight and awe, not icy shock.


I said to Brenda the other day that one thing I missed living here in mild San Francisco was waking up on cold winter mornings after a heavy snowfall during the night. The world is so still and silent in the frozen early dawn, the air so pure and bright it’s almost visible, a thing to touch. This crystal time doesn’t last very long, gone by noon if not sooner. I always want those cold, white, quiet mornings to extend for hours, even days. Time never is long enough.


I’m reminded of Wallace Stevens’ The Snow Man:

One must have a mind of winter

To regard the frost and the boughs

Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;


And have been cold a long time

To behold the junipers shagged with ice,

The spruces rough in the distant glitter


Of the January sun; and not to think

Of any misery in the sound of the wind,

In the sound of a few leaves,


Which is the sound of the land

Full of the same wind

That is blowing in the same bare place


For the listener, who listens in the snow,

And, nothing himself, beholds

Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Our lives are like that, too: nothing that is not there and nothing that is. I recently read an article in The Atlantic by a doctor who made the case that he didn’t want to live beyond the age of 75. His arguments were rational, informed by evidence of suffering diminished health, creativity, well-being and happiness as illness and cognitive decline take their toll. He believed that checking out at or around 75 was the dignified thing to do, not by suicide, but by declining any and all medical safeguards, remedies or life-saving measures. Nature would take its intended and inevitable course.

I don’t know. I hope I’ll die swimming in the ocean somewhere, not tomorrow, maybe not even when I’m 75. It’s a sweet idea, a rather wonderful kind of transition. I’ll keep that in mind.


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