Swimming With Babushkas

That’s the hole in the ice that I looked at on a cold Wednesday, before deciding to strip to my shorts in front of a gaggle of babushkas and jump in. The situation reminded me of when I went bungy jumping with my family in South Africa. There are plenty of obvious differences, but the idea of reevaluating the badassedness of a situation to include your mother (or a bunch of babushkas) struck me as similar.

January 19th is a Russian orthodox holiday called Kreshenya. On this day people dig a hole in the ice of a lake or river and place a contraption in it to be used for humanoid submersion. The contraption is two sets of stairs with a wooden walkway in between. Evidently during Kreshenya, water in Kazakhstan changes from radioactive to holy, and the endeavor has a baptismal feel to it. There are many connotations attached to Kreshenya, and they differ depending on who you talk to. Most ethnic Russians (generally Christian) say that it is very good for your health, where Kazakhs (generally Muslim) say that its dangerous and unhealthy. Whether or not the water is holy however, is not up for debate. Naturally I had to do it.

Figuring out how I’d get to the river was difficult, as I live in a Kazakh/Muslim family. I asked around for days, but hadn’t figured out the details, and so was sitting in my house Wednesday afternoon wondering if a mystery relative would come to pick me up and take me with him. As it was -17 F with a strong wind, I wasn’t exactly beating down doors to make it happen, but when my sister came home from school and told me that we were going with our neighbors in five minutes, I quickly put some shorts on under my pants and grabbed a camera.

We stopped on the way to the river to pick up the neighbor’s sixty year-old grandmother, making it a full car with a dose of humility. My host-sister’s 17 year-old friend was going for the first time and I think it was a yearly thing for grandma. Kreshenya goes continuously throughout the day, and we got down to the hole just in time to see an enormously fat man pull himself out of the water. Whereas my sister and her friend shrieked and averted their eyes, I was mesmerized by what I saw as a far superior and adapted body to the days events.

My sister asked for my pre-dunking face


I stood around for a few minutes trying to figure out what was going on and how I was going to accomplish the task at hand. I knew that you had to get in the water, dunk your head three times (if possible), and get out of the water. I quickly learned that besides that, there’s no real order to who goes when, and so you just gotta time it so you don’t end up naked and outside for too long. I also learned by trial and error that the big yurt-like building was the male/female changing room with separate entrances for men and women.

I saw a bunch of babushkas waddle into the yurt as I was trying to figure everything out, so I decided to wait until they were done before going in myself. I’m plagued by a sense of decorum when it comes to elderly women, and I didn’t want this form of chivalry to culminate in my getting frostbite by politely letting them cut me in line. Furthermore, babushkas here can be vicious, so even if I wasn’t polite, there’s a good chance that they would scuffle before waiting their turn. So one by one they dipped, most (to the dismay of the crowd) not going all the way under, I presume in order to maintain their carefully coiffed hair.

When I thought there was a lull, I slipped into the yurt and pealed off my clothes. “Hello Mr. Collin,” I heard timidly behind me, and I turned and saw Dennis, one of my seventh graders. Dennis is one of those sweet kids who I haven’t gotten to know that well yet because he doesn’t constantly require my undivided attention. He looked at me trying to put on a brave face and told me it was his first time doing Kreshenya. I’ve been scared shitless enough in my life to realize when someone else is, and I didn’t blame him, because most of the Babushka’s vigorously dunking outside probably outweighed him by a couple hundred pounds. Hoping to boost his confidence a bit, I told him that I’m a pansy when it comes to cold and that he could go right after me and watch me go in first. Then we bumped fists, threw our coats on the straw, and sprinted outside in our swimsuits.

About to dip with Dennis right behind me

After crossing myself, I stepped into the hole in the ice, walked to the middle, and submerged myself three times (I think there’s an association with the Father/Son/Holy Ghost). It was one of those blinding colds that my brain associated a low roar and a dark blue color. I’m not sure what I said when was in the water, but my host-sister and her friend told me that I was talking rapidly. I grabbed the handrails to accelerate my ascension of the steps leading out of the bath, but quickly let go feeling the cold metal burn through my palms. Then I moved as quickly as possible to the yurt, while trying to maintain my dignity. Once inside the unheated structure, I couldn’t get my clothes on fast enough, but did waste a precious minute by putting my pants right on over my now frozen boxers. It was a race to see if I could get everything tied, zipped, and buttoned before my fingers went completely numb, and I barely made it. Dennis finished in similar time due to paternal help, and we exchanged one last fist bump before his dad spirited him off to a waiting car.

After all were dunked and frozen, we crammed back into the car and drove home, three of us wetter and colder than on the outgoing trip. The main point of the story however, is that whenever you think that you’re doing something badass, you probably aren’t, or if you are, its probably the case that middle-aged women are doing it too. There’s no way to dance my way around this, but it’s not the same if your mom or someone who looks like your mom is doing it too. Which brings me back to being in South Africa and walking out across the catwalk of the Blookrantz bridge. As we walked, I was talking to a queasy looking South African who was home from playing professional rugby in England. At one point he turned to me and murmured dryly, “This is kind of like a dry run for suicide isn’t it?” The thing was though, that I couldn’t be that scared, or that self-impressed, because mom was having a blast. I think everybody felt a little strange jumping that day after Carol Markham Cousins asked for a round of applause before hurling her tiny body off the bridge. I tried to use this analogy to explain to my host-father why I did not feel like a superhero (translation issue maybe) after doing Kreshenya. It’s just not the same when you watch 60-70 year old babushka’s dunking before you, and then throwing back shots of Russian vodka.

I’m glad that I had that experience, because there’s something cleansing about submerging oneself in mind-numbingly cold water. I do however, think that the circumstance and attention at Kreshenya took a little bit away from what have before been almost spiritual experiences for me. One specific time I’m thinking of was a year and a half ago when my brother and I bathed in a glacial lake up in some Wyoming mountain range during our cross-country road trip. Our shocking bath was improved by an almost magical appearance of four college girls to oversee the situation. Kreshenya however, although busy, was still an interesting way to spend a Wednesday afternoon.

Those purely interested in stories should stop reading here.

I’ve been intellectually challenged to justify my ideas about human rights, which has prompted more thinking. The winds are whipping in from the East, but instead of inching up to a bearable temperature like it has before when the winds came, the mercury has stubbornly stayed around or below -20 F. Walking to and from school requires an effort that doesn’t allow for abstract thinking. Therefore, I’ve been doing this thinking either on my back, in my room, looking up at the ceiling with chocolate in my stomach, or sitting next to the pechka in the bathroom, staying warm and enjoying the sound of heat being created.

It seems to me that when thinking about human rights, philosophy generally follows along six major routes: objective truth, evolutionary “truth”, pretend objective truth, cultural relativism, nihilism, and admitted opinion.

Objective Truth: One believes in an objective, higher truth, and philosophy comes from it. I haven’t found any objective truth in my life, so I cannot feel justified in defending this supposition. Furthermore, huge problems often seem to arise from conflicting objective “truths.”

Pretend Objective Truth: The extensive justification of what merely turns out to be one’s own opinions. This is more or less all encompassing, and I’d put objective truth, cultural relativism, evolutionary, and nihilism under this umbrella. Kant, Mills, etc. Misleading, often confusing because it’s misleading.

Cultural Relativism: Every culture has their own set of norms, live and let live, we can’t judge what we don’t know. I see this as being dangerous in its repercussions; at what point do we say enough is enough? Genocide? Murder?

Nihilism: Nothing matters, there is no objective truth, there is no right and wrong. This could also encompass relativism, admitted opinion, and pretend objective truth. I also believe that this is a belief in itself and should be treated as such. Furthermore, if you believe in this belief, then what? How far are you willing to take it? Or what would do you want to live in, its up to you then. This is often appealing to me and hard to argue against.

Evolutionary: Try to create a situation on Earth where human genes are passed on in the most efficient vessels and are given the best chance at immortality. (This is a particularly scary philosophy because of its disregard for individuals and historical brutality) Furthermore, just another opinion, and in the end, who cares?

Admitted Opinion: This is what my philosophy is at the moment. I’m not sure of any objective truth, so I won’t go there. So, I’m left with my opinions. My opinion is that I want to treat people by trying to respect their humanity, and try to create a world in which its citizens have legal rights to their humanity. I want to work to create a world that my children can believe in.

Now all of this is much easier said in the abstract than done in reality, but I think that we must begin with a framework, and this is mine. But then I’m admittedly left with some complicated hypotheticals, like what to do in the case of intense and dangerous norms (FGC or female genital cutting), or minors rights (Christian Science parenting), or whether or not to invade countries with force. I’ll escape for the moment by saying that I think that we need to start by operating from a healthy framework, and each decision will have to be made on its own. But it is difficult, complicated, and frustrating. And no, I don’t know if I, or any other human, is smart enough to make a decision about right and wrong, or make the best decision in complicated situations like use of force to stop violence. But that’s only because we’re human, limited in our abilities to think about all of the factors or anticipate all of the results of any given situation. However, I think that we do need to begin with a framework.

Lesson of the day, don’t buy the cheapest razor blades.

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7 Responses to Swimming With Babushkas

  1. Patty says:

    Congrats on the dip! I got to experience a dip similar, but not billed as cathartic, when in Ely last winter with my 7th graders. The difference from your experience was that after our initial dip we sprinted to the waiting sauna, expelled all toxins from our bodies, and then dipped a second time to wash off said toxins. I guess that was baptismal in a way and we were renewed by the whole experience. Oh, and we did our dipping in the moonlight!

  2. John Halter says:

    I don’t care if your mother did jump off a bridge in South Africa, Mister Collin; in my book you are one badass mofo for taking the plunge at minus 17. Great story! Happy Kreshenya Day to you!

  3. Mary McCrossan says:

    Great pictures! You are such a good storyteller, I would have believed your tale without them, but they sure are impressive!

  4. John Halter says:

    Your father tells me you’re in possession of a Kindle. After reading your account of the Kreshenya Day festivities I was reminded of a book I read years ago about a Polish soldier who escapes from a Siberian gulag after WWII. It’s a true story. You gotta read it. It’s called “The Long Walk” and I see it’s available on Kindle.

  5. Jim Cousins says:

    Great story. Way to make a bunch of self-described hard core Minnesotan’s feel like pansies when it dips below zero a degree or two! And I appreciate the philosophical observations as well. After reading your six major routes, I offer a seventh, the “nihilism/admitted opinion, delicate combo (TM)” Upon recognizing that although there may be no objective truth with no right and wrong or moral judgment, there is another option than just giving up to the randomness of the world like a Nihilist. This option is see the insurmountable challenge and then choose – even though it may have no outcome whatsoever – to pursue what you think is good and pure, thereby beginning a long slow journey, but one which you are always on the right path.

    Starting a run you may never finish… that’s a way to appreciate every step.

    * TM: Trademarked and copyrighted by Jim, but as all good philosophies, for sale to the highest bidder.

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