A Sunday Swim

paintings and text by Jessica Stammen

Six Miles: Swimmers & Paddler // oil on panel // 10 x 22 inches

I have a Sunday habit like a swimmer who always returns to shore.

I was raised Catholic. Habits die hard. My particular habit became more catholic in college when I enrolled in a World Religions course and when I wound up in the student group at an Episcopal church completely by accident — and by accident I mean free pizza. Along with new spiritual shores, however, came the deepening waters of college, of living in New York City, of 9/11, and of personal loss.

Surviving the undergraduate heat I enrolled in round two as a grad student at NYU. Simultaneously I moved back to Maine. Wait, what? I planned to pay my way through school and this meant cramming classes into a 24 hour window and, once a week, bussing back and forth from Maine where it was much cheaper to live. I said so long to free Sunday night pizza, my preferred communion. After a semester of this routine, in an exhausted conversation with my former college group pastor, he proposed an alternative. Next thing I knew I was working in the library of an Episcopal convent on West 113th Street in exchange for room and board. Episcopalians to the rescue; the sisters offered shelter from the student loan swell.

When I completed grad school I moved back to Maine. No more bus, no more convent. Every so often I visit the local Episcopal church, less so a non-denominational congregation, and almost never the little Catholic church I grew up in. On a Sunday morning I am more likely out swimming, biking, hiking, and breathing fresh air.

On a particular Sunday morning this past summer I found myself like a women at the tomb of Jesus, greeting a grey dawn on the first day of the week with a certain measure of trepidation and anxiety. Two friends and I stepped into the dark waters of Norton Pond shrouded in fog and unsure of the journey that lay ahead. We swim this adventure every year; six miles, starting at the pond, funneling through The Narrows, and winding our way down the entire length of Megunticook Lake. In the end we always make it; but in the beginning it never feels like we will.

The muffled dark depths of these mornings, our heads underwater for hours, must be something like the threshold of death. No, not quite dead; just restlessly locked in a tomb. There is commotion above the surface as the day breaks, but the stone that is our adventure has shut us in and hasn’t yet been rolled away.


Two miles into our watery trek we pass a rock. We pass it every year but it is not until this past year that a connection is made and in my mind something rolls away. I remember: this rock means something. This rock marked the first ever, and for a long time only open water swim of my life. I think it is also the reason I find an otherwise random anchor in Episcopal company. I’m not Episcopalian and one day I found myself speaking on a panel at their National General Convention. How does that happen?

I think this rock is to blame.

Fernald's Neck, Rock // oil on canvas // 5 x 7 inches

On the shore directly opposite this formidable mound of granite rising from lake waters is Bishopswood Summer Camp. As a teenager I attended many basketball and softball camps in the seasons between one grade and the next, but Bishopswood was the only true summer camp I ever experienced. As an almost-seventh grader it was my first sleep-away camp and I spent most the week in an anxious state. My family lived just two miles away — across the lake, over the dam and a short way down the river — but this didn’t help me sleep at night. Compounding my homesickness was a tendency toward introversion and social awkwardness. Also, the camp counselors wanted to teach me to swim.

Before we get to the swimming I will say this: there was one thing I was quite confident about at Bishopswood. I was without a doubt going to partake in the communion service at the end of the camp week.

Bishopswood was an Episcopal camp. I knew nothing of what this meant at the time except that, as a Catholic I had been warned not to participate in “their” communion. This warning was given with wide eyes and a tone of doom. Thank God I have always possessed an innate and quite animated distrust of any and all church rules that define separation between “us” and “them.” (Clearly I was never meant to last in the Catholic church.) At camp I ate the Episcopal bread and drank the grape juice like it was my job. Maybe I love the Episcopal church because it reminds me of this first defiant and free act? Could be; but I think there is another, more ridiculous and wonderful reason.

It is swimming, not anything spiritual (and no, not the pizza) that ties me to the Episcopal church.

Although it caused extreme turmoil at the time, Bishopswood planted a seed that would sprout the love of long distance swimming later in my life. Was I afraid of water when I was young? Well, yes and no. Again, my family lived on Megunticook River, on the same water that flowed past the camp’s shoreline. There isn’t a summer day of my youth I don’t remember spending in the water. But I never dove. I never practiced proper strokes. I never did anything that didn’t allow one hand to remain free for nose-plugging at any and all times. The thought of both my nostrils underwater like straws in my favorite milkshake, liable to ingest the entire river with one panicked inhale, was unthinkable.

At Bishopswood I don’t remember which summer-crush-distracted counselor lumped me into a swim skill group challenged with the adventure to swim from camp shore to the enormous rock on Fernald’s Neck, but they were wrong. And in being so wrong, they were exactly right. Years later this would be the same rock I grew to love more each summer as I swam past it on the annual six mile trek.

I realize now that the most likely cause of my camp insomnia was anticipating the impossibility of swimming such a long distance  — because it required me to put my face in the water without plugging my nose. Surely one could not doggy paddle the whole way without drowning from exhaustion?

On the day of the swim I don’t remember much…a counselor paddling just in front of me, encouraging me to keep going in a cruel, peppy tone…the stern of a rowboat…the oars…and the constant frustration of not quite moving fast enough to grab hold and be pulled the rest of the way. I sputtered and coughed pathetically through a few freestyle strokes at a time. The lake was deep below me. So deep. And there was so. Much. Water. To swallow.

The swim from shore to rock is about a quarter mile, or not even a half mile round trip.

Somehow I made it to the rock. I don’t know how; I’ve blocked it out. I do remember resting on the rock. I remember clawing at its steep side, scrambling up its lichen-covered face, perching and looking back across to the camp. I remember nothing of the return swim.


Nearly twenty years later and I found myself perched on that rock again, two miles into our annual swim adventure. The stone slowly began to roll away as I remembered my seventh-grade self and began to feel long delayed waves of triumph and joy. At what? Could it be that the anxiety of my adolescence had entirely blocked satisfaction in my swim achievement at the time it happened? I remember the stern and oars…sputtering…choking…nothing specific. Along with the pain I had also blocked the pleasure of accomplishment from memory. I don’t think I ever allowed myself to feel excited, proud, or even relieved. I had never felt anything but fear about it; but now, in a new moment, I began to feel. I was perched atop that rock again, and it was good.


Earlier in the morning we had stopped once before, after our mile-long slog down the length of Norton’s Pond and winding our way through The Narrows. Right before the shallow, weedy waters spit us out into the north end of Megunticook Lake we picked up our heads to sight a passing under Ken Bailey Bridge. And we stopped.

Foggy Morning, Treading Water // oil on panel // 6 x 6 inches

Ken Bailey had been our Lake Warden for years. He was an absolutely beloved community member who lost a battle with cancer just three months earlier. Our flotilla had determined to mark Ken’s good memory with silence at this bridge. It was Sunday morning and there we were, perched on rocks while our three accompanying paddlers remained still for a minute, no more. Suddenly came a man walking briskly over the bridge. As a natural segue out of our silence we greeted him with open-hearted good mornings; one of us asked what it was he had there in his hand. Without stoping his intentional cadence, and with a purposeful chuckle, he waved a clipboard in the air and said it was his sermon. He was out for a walk to practice and pray. I smiled hugely while the others laughed somewhat quietly and uncomfortably. I identified with the pastor’s visibly overflowing spirit; it’s how I felt at that very moment in the middle of my own Sunday morning adventure and I, too, was exercising restraint from singing and shouting about it.

“A pastor with a clipboard,” said one of the swimmers with a slight roll of her eyes after he had passed.

“Jesus Christ,” dismissed one of the paddlers.

The sarcasm and ironic irreverence of their comments only made the moment more perfect. In just another mile I would be reminded of how one of the worst experiences of my young life would be reconciled and that I had no idea how it would all fit together, and when — the fear and the joy. All I knew in that moment was this: three swimmers and three paddlers had just spent the length of Norton alternating between quiet, sacred spans of silence as the sun rose behind the fog, and uproarious bouts of laughter when, surfacing for just a moment, we vocalized how incredibly insane we were to be doing this. I’m sure the slumbering pond residents were not amused. We were the alarm clock set too soon, and with a faulty snooze button. I know they were in bed, rolling their eyes and cursing us.

St. Augustine, familiar with the struggle between the sacred and profane, said something in Latin that translates: “It is solved by walking.” Here we were, on a Sunday morning, and it was being solved by swimming.

I passed underneath Ken Bailey’s bridge and swam along that lake like it was my calling. I swam past the rock and my long delayed seventh grade satisfaction, I swam down along Fernald’s Neck where I caught glimpses of the preserve every time I breathed to the right. On a sunny day these breaths would be sharp, brief glimpses filled with near blinding light; but on this day, in the fog, they were soft, ethereal shimmerings. My fellow swimmers and I rhythmically slipped in and out of submergence. We were slipping glimpsers, a term painter Willem De Kooning used to describe himself at work. I am a swimmer and I am an artist too. I thought, then, about the paintings I wanted to do of this swim.

Paddler, Swimmer // oil on panel // 6 x 6 inches

Reaching the end of Fernald’s Neck our meditational, confident cadence ended. The final leg of our journey became urgent. We had to traverse the wide open bowl at the southern end of the lake. The shore would be a long way off, exhaustion had gradually increased in each of us, and the surface had worked up a decent chop. We rested on some rocks and gazed across to Barrett’s Cove, sizing up the distance. A stand-up paddler was spotted along the far shore and one of our paddlers, herself on a stand-up board, yelled, “Look it’s Jesus!” The irreverence continued. We launched off, each slap of my arm to the water like a prayer for us all to know reconciliation with that which we fear and make fun of.

We were in the middle of the lake when the wind whipped up even more. I lifted my head with some difficulty to sight the paddler leading our way and — oh my! — I quickly halted to a tread. The sun had burned through the fog at the south side of the lake. I whipped around and the sky was correspondingly ominous to the north. There was still a shroud of fog about everything. It was, all of it, dramatic.

There I was, slipping and glimpsing, swimming and solving, watching the stone roll away. There was no more land preserve on my right, no more preservation; there were no more pretty paintings, no thoughts of painting. Then, only, was the lake and the paddlers. My seventh-grade self recalled — the oars! — and my current self saw our paddler support team surrounding us in a triangle with thrilling notes of red, yellow, white, and pink against the silver reflection of everything else. The sense of their protection and guidance suddenly rippled over me. There, in that vulnerable place, their constancy and patience made me unexpectedly emotional. It was not a ridiculous thing we were doing; it was of utmost importance. We were solving by swimming, and my spirit was preaching a sermon to myself.

Paddlers // oil on panel // 5 x 7 inches

We make fun of others, and in doing so we make fun of ourselves. We are full of fear in so many forms. Yes, we can and do walk on water, just like the paddler we saw “over there.” When will we know it is not about differences between us and them, here and there, now and then? In seeing others may we always see ourselves. In reconciling with our past may we know ourselves now.

Unlike the bridge-crossing pastor I could no longer keep my silence. I burst out of the water and screeched with joy; the paddlers looked and my fellow swimmers stopped. I twirled with my arms overhead, squealed again and slipped back into my stroke without any explanation. There was no more fear of drowning by inhaling the entire lake. “If this would be my end,” I thought,  “it would be a good way to go. I’m sure they would give me a nice funeral at the Episcopal church in town — maybe even the Catholic one.”