May Dipping

Although it hardly seems possible, the event that came up on my Time Hop this week that happened one year ago was the St. Andrews May Dip. I remember it so vividly I wouldn’t be surprised if you told me it happened yesterday—in fact, I got an involuntary chill just looking at the photos from the day.

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Our faces say, “I want to die.”

I can’t remember (or perhaps was never told) how the tradition started or what significance it holds, other than the fact that it remains one of the only ways to cleanse yourself of academic sins (linked to other St. Andrews traditions like not stepping on the letters “PH” on a sidewalk or participating in academic families) or have good luck on end of year exams. And, like any good tradition, there is generally a lot of drinking involved. Typically, students across campus will host all-night parties in dorms or on the beach itself to prepare for sunrise, at which time hundreds of students will charge forward into the freezing waters of the North Sea.

I didn’t participate fully in the tradition—meaning, I considered myself sane and went to bed at midnight to prepare. I woke up four hours later, reluctantly put on a bathing suit, and trudged out with friends for the beach.

From my dorm to the beach in question, it was about a fifteen minute walk, and in that short period I could tell that the morning would not be pleasant. Although the May Dip happens on the first of May, this is Scotland we’re talking about; the temperature remains stubbornly 45 degrees on any given day, so a 4:30 am walk through town did nothing to make us feel better about the temperatures we were about to be experiencing.

What can I say about the beach, though? Walking down to the sand in a throng of people, I could see why it might be fun to try the whole all-nighter thing. Though it was freezing outside and dark, bonfires were set up down the entire length of the beach, and people sat around laughing, drinking, entertaining. One guy juggled flaming torches. Another set up a boombox. My friends and I hung around for a bit, watching the sky lighten incrementally, listening to the revelry, waiting.

Sunrise was less of an event, and more of a feeling. There wasn’t a particular shift of sound or movement, just a general sensation in the air that the time had come. Like members of a telepathic community, students across the beach began stripping off outer layers, revealing bikinis or swim trunks underneath (or, unfortunately, sometimes nothing at all). The first into the water were a group of streakers, their screams of exhilaration cut short as they hit the frigid water—but that was replaced by enthusiastic cheering from everyone else on the beach. Then, with the tension cut, all hell broke loose.

All doubts I had about the May Dip were dispelled once I saw the pure joy erupting along the shoreline. Instead of chatter, the air was filled with screams of delight, shouts of triumph, laughter. People threw off towels, bolted for the water, came back with arms held high.

I looked to my running partner and we agreed, mutually. Barefoot and in bikinis, we held hands and sprinted across ice-cold sand into water that was even icier. Rollercoasters have proven that screaming somehow makes terror more exciting, so I screamed along with everyone who had already hit the water. I let go of my friend’s hand, took a breath, and ducked my head under the wave, experiencing more brain freeze than would ever be possible with a wimpy cold drink.

Then we were running back, across cold sand, feet already numb, throwing on towels, shielding each other as we scrambled to get the wet bathing suits off and pull on the sweaters we had arrived in. We didn’t hang around long, already too cold to bear. Even with thick socks (in my flip-flops—classy), sweatpants, a sweater, and a winter coat, the fifteen minute walk back was unbearable. My numb feet were no longer numb, they sent bursts of electricity up my legs with every step. Halfway back to the dorm, I was genuinely concerned I was going to need to have them amputated.

In the wee hours of the morning, we parted ways again, too chilled and too tired to say much, but still utterly thrilled at what we had just done. Still, even after a warm (not hot) shower, with two sweaters and two pairs of socks, under a thick comforter, drinking a cup of hot tea, I could not stop shivering. I didn’t stop for a long while, but I watched that pink sunrise outside of my window and listened to hundreds of other students return to their dorms and felt completely, utterly satisfied.

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Today, a year and some odd days later, on this rainy Monday in Iowa, I turned in my last college assignment. Today, I am officially done with college. After four years of papers, readings, tests, and more papers, I have reached the end of the line and am finally at the tipping point into the real world.

In a way, this feels familiar. It feels like holding the hands of my friends, running wild with terror into the North Sea. It feels like that painful cold that takes my breath away as I submerge: the shock of it, the thrill like electricity. And it feels like finally letting go of their hands and running blind, with numbness at our feet and the sunrise at our backs.

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