Keeping my breath

By Paryn Neer


I recently read a book that pointed out an every-day human bad habit that I had not really noticed before. Now, it is all I can see when I have the opportunity to see someone’s face. It’s everywhere! Anytime I can see someone’s mouth, and admittedly that is not so frequent in these Covid-times, I notice it. Mouth breathing. It has given me my new favorite insult. It’s up there with Wanker (which I have loved dearly for years.)

Wanker! Mouth Breather!

This past winter, over the space of about two weeks, I went from breathing through my nose who-knows-how-often to moving through life with my lips sealed. There were challenging spots along my path in this transformation. While reading books at night-time with my Littles, or talking on the phone, or speaking in a Zoom meeting, I would pause— often in awkward places of my sentences, to take long breaths through my nose. While on my exercise bike, I would refuse to open my mouth when my body told me to— leading to an interesting tug-of-war between my brain and body that I frankly found entertaining. After two weeks, I could ride the hardest rides without opening my mouth even once to breathe. It was so cool. But now there is my final frontier: my weekly ritual of jumping into the Salish Sea.

Cold water swimming is a magical thing. I can walk into the water unhappy and cranky, and I can emerge laughing and electrically alive. Through the endless gray winter of the Pacific Northwest, I maintain my inner sun by walking down a rocky beach and wading into the oh-so-cold water and plunging in. I don’t put my head under. I tell myself that’s because of my ears and being prone to earaches, but who am I kidding? It’s because I prefer to keep my brain warm while I freeze my body. No wetsuit. Just a bathing suit, and I would certainly skinny dip if I thought I could get away with it. If I’m feeling brave, I will do a few frog strokes; if I’m feeling wimpy, I will jump right up out of the water and slosh my way back to shore immediately. But as soon as I am dried off and warm, standing there in my coat, down pants, boots, and hat, I cannot wait for my next chance to be in the water.

I’m like a kid in the Cold Water Swimmers Kiddie Pool. There are professional cold water swimmers out there who train, who swim distances, and who take this shit seriously. Honestly, I’m just splashing around. Maybe one day I will commit and put in the hard work to become a real cold-water swimmer, but for now my goal seems small and reasonable: get into the water and out again without breathing through my mouth. So far, I have been unsuccessful. Time and time again I wade into the icy water with my brain pumping myself up, “Ok, ready? You can do this!” You would think I needed to pump myself up to drop into frigid water, but No! That part seems easy compared with keeping my mouth closed while I do it. I wade in up to my waist. So far so good. I do my count down, and then I push off and glide into the water and my mouth opens! I often yell (although I’ve been told this sounds like a scream.) I gulp in cold air through my mouth while my brain yells at me, “Shut it!” Every time, without fail, the water takes my breath away. So far.

So, I now have a true quest. It is Spring here in the PNW. The months of March and April are when the waters of the Salish Sea are the coldest of the year because of melting mountain snow running into them. My swim bag is packed and ready for this Saturday’s adventure. I am going to swim in the coldest water that my home ocean can offer me, and I am going to keep my breath to myself.

Wish me luck! And a closed mouth.


Paryn lives in the Pacific Northwest, surrounded by her husband, children, and a menagerie of animals. When she is not working one of her two full-time jobs, she hides in the bathroom to write.

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