My ritual to acknowledge life’s ups and downs

The small ups and downs of life are important. Sarah found a way to celebrate wins, wash away discomforts, spend time with a friend and cool off from a Texas summer all at once.
Bartons Springs pool in Austin, Texas at night.
Barton Springs at night

If you’ve ever visited Austin, Texas, in the middle of summer, you might wonder why people are moving to the city in droves. Hundred-degree temperatures are the norm and it can be unbearable to be outside, even at 10:00 p.m. As a result, Austin is a big swimming town. And the crown jewel of Austin swimming is Barton Springs, a natural spring-fed pool right near downtown. 

To say Barton Springs is cold would be a vast understatement. The year-round temperature of the water hovers around 70 degrees — at least 15 degrees colder than a typical pool. A plunge into the springs takes my breath away every time, and I grew up playing in the Great Lakes.

Last summer, safe from the heat under a blasting AC system, I attended a conference on women and work. When asked how she commemorates failure and success, one of the panelists replied, “I throw myself into Barton Springs.” She found the waters to be both cleansing and celebratory.

Aside from always looking for ways to escape the heat, I was struck by the fact that this woman had found a regular way to acknowledge the important moments in her life. I loved the idea of washing away failures, and research shows that celebrating success helps you savor positive things, builds resilience and boosts positive emotions that help manage stress. I was intrigued.

Taking the plunge

Not wanting to waste the rare opportunity to feel refreshed in the midst of Texas summer, and inspired by the idea of doing something special for myself, one evening about a week later I went to Barton Springs. It’s free to swim between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m., and I invited my friend, Elena, to join me. 

I hadn’t been there in a while and the water was as cold as I remembered. But the scene was even more magical than I anticipated. At night, though big floodlights are on, the water looks almost black. The stars shine above you and when you get to the middle of the springs, there’s a break in the trees that reveals the downtown Austin skyline all lit up.

Also, because you can’t scroll through a phone while swimming, or even while soaking wet on the edge of the pool, the scene of people splish-splashing around or socializing on the concrete near the edge with nary a smartphone in sight could have been from 1970. I felt incredibly present.

Making it a habit

Elena and I enjoyed ourselves so much the first evening, we decided to go again a few nights later. Soon we were there two nights a week. It was perfect for both of us — by 9:00 p.m. Elena’s two kids were already asleep and my work was done for the day. It felt like finding a bonus hour we didn’t know we had in our lives.

Even the things we talked about felt amplified by our swims. Something about plunging into freezing cold, jet black water strips things away, and our conversations would turn almost immediately to the most profound topics on our minds. We would skip small talk almost entirely and move straight to things like families, social justice and the nature of love.

Creating a ritual

As our twice-weekly dips became a habit, we started adding to the ritual. I told her the story of the woman I had heard at the panel on success and failure, and we began setting intentions before we jumped in. They were often about celebrating an accomplishment, prepping for an upcoming opportunity or needing to wash away uncomfortable feelings from the previous days. We would say them out loud, then dive into the water together. 

Because it was intimidating to jump into such cold water, we challenged each other to not use the air conditioning in our cars on the 15-ish minute drive to the pool. Given that it’s often 90 degrees at 10:00 p.m., this was no small feat. We would arrive at the pool hot, sweaty and ready to jump in. We also started listening to Delilah, the long-time national radio host in love with love, on the way home and texting each other about the songs we’d heard. I’m not a huge sappy music fan, but something about hearing old, slow love songs on my way home from the springs made me feel like I was in an extended, responsibility-free teenage summer.

Making something divine

What I learned from our swims is that you can find a way to make simple experiences incredibly special, instead of waiting for life’s “wow” moments to come to you. Yes, having a natural-fed spring pool in the middle of your city makes creating a magical experience easier. But you can add meaning to anything, whether it’s being in nature, cooking a meal or even having a TV night with a friend. (Shoutout to the friends I watched Dawson’s Creek with weekly in high school, which was basically a religious experience for us). Creating the divine is often what makes things divine.

Ultimately, what made those swims divine was the special experience of acknowledging life’s landmarks, large and small, with a friend. At the springs, we commemorated huge milestones, like Elena sending both of her sons to school for the first time and me buying a house. But we also talked through more subtly important things like how to have difficult conversations with friends and family and how to be kinder to ourselves, all as we swam.

As adults, it can be easy to downplay the importance of the “small” things that happen in our lives. We celebrate marriage wildly, but rarely congratulate friends or ourselves for having the courage to ask someone on a date. We make space for grief when catastrophic events happen, but don’t give ourselves the room to mourn a bad day. All are important.

It can also be easy to slide into a social life that consists almost entirely of sitting around tables or at bars. Though it’s great to have focused conversation, sometimes, in my opinion, it can get a little boring. I don’t always want to spend an entire evening talking, and I appreciate the opportunity to do an activity together — something psychologists say makes relationships stronger.

In the end, female friendship and everyday life are some of the most divine things I’ve ever experienced. Making a habit and ritual out of acknowledging life’s ups and downs, and prioritizing spending time together, made those nighttime swims even more amazing than they already were. I know it’s not even really spring yet, but I’m already thinking about the hot summer days that will bring an excuse to get back to Barton Springs  — and I can’t wait.

What do you think? (Leave comments here.)