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Swimming with My Ancestors

“Breathing in, I see all my ancestors in me: my mineral ancestors, plant ancestors, mammal ancestors, and human ancestors. My ancestors are always present, alive in every cell of my body, and I play a part in their immortality.”

Thich Nhat Hanh, The Art of Living


To commemorate the end of summer, I am dedicating this blog post to one of my favorite summer activities—swimming. More specifically, swimming at Walden Pond. Though I have been living in the Boston area for some time and am based reasonably close to Walden pond, it did not occur to me that I could swim in it until three years ago, when a friend of mine invited us all out there for a dip. Since then, I have been making the trip to Walden pond as often as possible every summer.


I love to swim but must admit that I am not particularly good at it. The only swimming lessons I ever had were at a local community center when I was in middle school, and I have to admit that I placed last in every swim meet. While I will likely never learn how to do a proper butterfly stroke or a flip-turn, I am grateful to have learned how to swim at all. As the only one in my family who feels comfortable enough to swim in the deep end, I recognize this privilege every time I come back again and again to enjoy the water.


Walden pond is surrounded by woods, so in order to get to the shore, I must walk along a narrow wooded trail where small leaves and twigs will often snag at my clothes. Once I find an unoccupied clearing, my body relishes the freedom of the open space, free of pesky bugs and branches. The moment my feet touch the water, something special happens—I feel instantly rejuvenated and calm. The water feels like a long and enduring kiss when I dive fully underwater. My mind settles even more as I shift my focus on just two things: my body and my breath. I’m aware of my arms as they swipe forward and then pull back for another stroke, the power in my lower back that propels my kicks, and the angle of my neck as I turn my head to breath.


As I imagine the positioning of my body, I think about Harold, my old pet axolotl, a curious looking underwater creature with limbs, a long tail, and frilly gills on the side of its smiling face. I remember my surprise when I noticed how Harold’s “hands” and “feet” looked so much like my own, with pronounced fingers and toes. Whenever I looked down from above the tank, I could see the undulating shape of his long spine, his four limbs sticking out like two arms and two legs, so much like a human yet so amphibian when considering the gentle fin that rose from his back.


Axolotls are native to Mexico's Lake Xochimilco and Lake Chalco, but due to habitat destruction face extinction in their natural home. The species continues to survive in captivity because they are bred as pets for their resemblance to Pokémon and as research subjects for their ability to regenerate neurons. Julio Cortázar, an Argentine writer in the 1900s, understood the magic of these animals. In his short essay, entitled “The Axolotl,” he describes the unconscious transformation of a human narrator into an axolotl after gazing at it in an aquarium. Something similar is happening to me as I move through the water.


Somewhere beneath my skin, thin webs start to form between my fingers and toes. I can feel the slightest of fins sprouts along my spine as it sways gently from side to side. Gradually, my body coordinates all the necessary actions on its own. No longer having to concentrate on each movement, I am free to simply exist in this silent world, paddling forth with no aim other than to do what I was created to do, just as how Harold swam because he could.


I believe I am not alone in experiencing this shift in the water. In fact, there is a concept that may offer some explanation—the mammalian diving reflex, which describes how mammals, soon after immersing themselves in water, show several major physiological changes designed to adapt to lower levels of oxygen. These include the constriction of peripheral blood vessels, reduction in the rate of breathing, and concentration of blood to the torso and vital organs. For me, such automatic and immediate adjustments manifest as an enveloping sense of calm as a more ancient part of my DNA comes back alive.


My breath slows down even more, and I can feel the power of the air entering and leaving my lungs. It suddenly occurs to me that this breath has flowed seamlessly through all the generations that came beforehand. This is the breath that my mother had passed down to me in the womb, the same breath that she had received from her own mother. The very same breath threads through countless generations past, reaching all the way to my pre-land ancestors. While the breath can only be accessed in the present moment, in doing that we are also connecting to the full extent of our past.


I have now swum across the lake, and it’s time to turn around. On my way back, I am no longer trying to concentrate on my breath—it is simply happening, the deep inhales and exhales synchronizing smoothly with every movement. Time stretches and condenses, and after a period of what could have been minutes or hours, I am back at the shore where I started.


As I emerge from the water, the fins retract into my skin, and the webs disappear. I begin the process of preparing for life on land—drying my hair, changing into dry clothes, and packing up my bag. Eventually I am human again, though something is different from when I first entered the water. I have reconnected to that memory deep within me, of times when water was my main home, and I have acknowledged the strength of adaptation and survival that has run through my veins for thousands of years. Quietly, I pick up my bag and head back onto the trail, no longer minding the gentle snag of twigs and leaves.





Some questions for reflection:

  • Who are your ancestors? How far back can you remember?

  • What strengths do you inherit from them? What else have you received?

  • What are some activities that help you feel more connected to your ancestors?

Feel free to comment below or send me a message!

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All words, images, and sounds © 2020 My Ngoc To