Our Turn At This Earth: Joy

Jul 2, 2020

As a young woman, I met a guy who consulted the I Ching whenever he needed to make a decision. When he consulted that ancient Chinese book of divination about me, the result seemed beyond coincidental. The answer he got fell under a heading that, in English, meant “The Joyous, Lake.”

It thrilled and flattered me that the oracle had made that connection. The greatest joy in my life was swimming in mountain lakes.

I still love nothing more than swimming in a cold, clear lake on a hot summer day. The heat makes taking the plunge irresistible. In my book, The Ogallala Road, I describe lying on a boulder beside a lake in the high Sierras:

“I hang my arm off the edge, and, trailing my fingers through the water, begin a slow, delectable flirtation. The high-altitude sun presses my back as with a dry iron, while below me, riffles slap rock. Glare refracts off the water, dappling my arms and flashing hypnotically on my retinas. I am irradiated, intoxicated.”

When I couldn’t resist anymore and dove into that lake, I shot back to the surface with a scream. But, as with all my dives into mountain water, my skin soon adapted to the cold. I relished the water’s silken feel on my skin. And, swimming with my eyes open as I always do, I loved watching my hands and arms, radiant and sunlit from above, ply through the clear water.

Mountain lake water is always too cold to stay in it for long, yet it takes an act of sheer will to get out before hypothermia sets in.

In my book, I wrote about how it felt to lie down on a warm boulder after a cold swim: “…the sun’s high heat penetrates me, lifting and nullifying the lake’s deep cold. Enlivened, awakened, I savor all to which I’ve been reborn – the rasping call and obsidian sheen of a raven slicing the depthless blue above me, the tickle of my arm’s sun-bleached hairs as I drag my lips over them, breathing my skin’s smell. The fragrance doesn’t come only from the lake, but from granite, ozone, and pine.”

The joys of this favorite pastime are the reason a picture in a recent digital issue of the New York Times, of a woman sunbathing on a natural rock bridge over a large body of indigo water, caught my eye.

I hit the Facebook link at the top of the page and posted the picture along with the accompanying article. I seldom post anything on Facebook, but it seemed well worth making an exception for this image, which brought up so many memories of my joyful swims in similarly stunning places. The post got a few immediate likes and comments but when I checked back the next day to see if there had been any other responses, I was greeted by a note from the Facebook censors telling me that I had violated their community standards. The image had been removed and my posting privileges would be suspended for 24 hours.

At first I was surprised that a photo that had run in one of the nation’s foremost newspapers would be considered inappropriate for Facebook, but then I read the rest of the note: “We restrict the display of nudity or sexual activity,” it explained, “because some people in our community may be sensitive to this type of content.”

Oh. It was a distant shot of her, taken from high above, but I guessed the woman was pretty naked.

This may seem strange to you, but her nudity hadn’t even registered on me, this even though the title of the article was The Splendors of Lying Naked in the Sun.

This is just an example, I guess, of how overpowering personal experience can be. For me, the photo was not about the woman’s nakedness. It was about water, rock and sun. It was about the “sun’s high heat lifting and nullifying the lake’s deep cold.” It was about joy.